Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
Q. Why did Prime Minister Bennett and Foreign Minister Lapid initiate new elections?
A. They decided to preempt the imminent fall of their shaky and diverse coalition and
seize the initiative. Their eight-party government, which embraced Arab Islamists and
left, center and right-wing Zionists, was losing its majority as opportunistic deserters,
defectors and protesters from nearly all factions withdrew their support. Rather than
enable opposition-leader Benjamin Netanyahu to form an alternative coalition or force
elections, on Monday June 20 Bennett and Lapid took the initiative.
The reasons for the government’s loss of power barely a year after taking office are many
and varied. In some ways, it was Israel’s dysfunctional political system that defeated
them. The eight parties required to make up a 61 member-of-Knesset majority disagreed
on everything. The welcome innovation of an Arab party in the coalition drew the ire of
Bennett’s own right-wingers, especially during a recent Palestinian terror wave. Yamina,
Bennett’s own far-right pro-settler party, proved to be the most unstable unit in the
coalition, followed on the left by Meretz and the Arab Raam. In contrast, Netanyahu held
the opposition together even as he fought embarrassing court battles.
The last straw may have been the coalition’s failure to renew a law that places West Bank
settlers under Israeli legal jurisdiction even though, technically, they do not live in Israel.
That has been their status since 1967--in effect, the first brick in the wall of West Bank
apartheid. Changing that status by default would have plunged hundreds of thousands of
Israelis and occupation institutions into anarchy.
Bennett, a champion of the settlers, would have paid a political price. Netanyahu, another
champion of the settlers but a smarter politician, withheld opposition support for
renewing the law, and Bennett could not muster his own coalition’s disparate votes. By
initiating new elections, that law is now automatically extended for six months, thereby
removing it as an election issue.
Q. What happens now?
A. The coalition and the opposition have tentatively agreed upon October 25 as election
day. Lapid and Bennett concur that next week Lapid becomes interim prime minister and
remains foreign minister. Bennett becomes alternate prime minister and will hold an as
yet undefined ‘Iran file’ that reflects his assessment that his policy of “a thousand cuts’
against the Iranian “head of the octopus” is a success with the Israeli public. Lapid will
host the visit in mid-July of US President Joe Biden.
Israel’s political parties will now rapidly gear up for new elections. Some, like Likud and
Labor, will hold primaries with the participation of all party members. Some parties,
weakened by their coalition failure, may merge: Labor and Meretz have been mentioned;
so have Bennett’s Yamina and Gideon Saar’s New Hope.
The actual election campaign will be ugly, with Netanyahu and his right-religious allies
spearheading accusations against the outgoing coalition that range from treason to
Meanwhile, Yair Lapid can try to score electoral points by running the interim
government smoothly. But he will be handicapped by his inability, as caretaker, to make
senior appointments or pass a budget.
Q. Can’t Netanyahu simply form an alternative government now, thereby averting the need for a fifth Knesset election in three and a half years?
A. The Netanyahu-led opposition (without the Joint Arab list, which is in the
parliamentary opposition but opposes Netanyahu) would need to recruit at least seven
coalition defectors to get to 61. To be on the safe side, Bennett and Lapid are heading
Netanyahu off by proposing instant dissolution of the Knesset. In any case, Netanyahu
appears to prefer to seek a renewed electoral mandate that exploits right wing
disappointment with Bennett in order to form a stable right-religious government, rather
than try to form another unstable coalition.
Yet another election, even if ‘won’ by Netanyahu, could also yield another unstable
coalition. Just as likely, it will yield no working parliamentary majority at all (like three
of the last four elections), thereby leaving Lapid and Bennett temporarily in power and
mandating yet another election and more instability.
Q. What does this say about the Israeli system?
A. It is broken. Nor is there any near-term hope of fixing it. Indeed, if Netanyahu does
triumph, his first priority will be to weaken and neutralize the judicial system. That will
enable him to avoid prosecution for corruption, while rendering the Israeli political
system overall yet more dysfunctional.
Q. Surely this one-year coalition (it broke Ehud Barak’s record for the shortest-term government) accomplished something . . .?
A. It did indeed, and those accomplishments will constitute the platforms of its eight
constituent parties. Bennett and Lapid took office following three failed elections and
more than a decade of Netanyahu’s populism and corrupt leadership. They restored a
sense of normality to political life: solid governance, appointment of worthy gatekeepers, fighting corruption, repairing Israel’s global standing and particularly repairing relations
with the Biden administration. They kept the economy open and prospering despite the
Lapid and Bennett broke precedent by integrating an Arab party (and an Islamist one at
that!) into government. They reduced Arab-sector crime and investigated lingering
Netanyahu-era scandals (the submarine deals, the Meron disaster). They held the line on
Iran, yet without angering Washington. They strengthened and fleshed out the Abraham
Accords, especially in the economic sector. They repaired and strengthened strategic
relations with Egypt and Jordan.
They managed to do all this without making any progress whatsoever on the Palestinian
issue, yet ostensibly without making matters worse.
Q. Are there political winners and losers in this new Israeli political drama?
A. Yair Lapid wins by becoming prime minister at election time. An instant poll on June 20
awarded 20 mandates to his Yesh Atid party (up from 17). Naftali Bennett loses: he is
likely to be blamed for the failure of both his government and his Yamina party, which
lost three of its seven mandates to defections. Bennett may now bow out of politics rather
than lose in elections or play second fiddle in the anti-Netanyahu political right to, say,
Gideon Saar or Avigdor Liberman.
At first glance, both Arab Raam and left-wing Meretz appear to have lost by betting on a
predominantly right-center coalition. An early poll showed Meretz placing below the
Benjamin Netanyahu wins by claiming victory in bringing down the Bennett-Lapid
Q. How will this election be fought in Israel’s Arab sector, some 20 percent of the
A. Raam (United Arab List) under Mansour Abbas will argue that it has proven the virtue
of playing within the system. It gained large budgetary allotments for Israel’s Arabs and
reduced rampant crime. It will pledge to join, on similar terms, whatever coalition
replaces the current one. In contrast, the opposition Joint Arab List will accuse Raam of
capitulating to the Zionists and abandoning Palestinian national needs.
Among the Palestinian population of Israel, as among the Jewish population, this will be
a rancorous election.
Q. If Netanyahu wins enough mandates (at least 61) to form a right-religious coalition, what is he likely to do?
A. His most immediate priority is to weaken the judicial branch, end his trial and escape
prosecution for corruption. If he succeeds, he may conceivably try to coopt some of the
center-right parties that formed the outgoing anti-Netanyahu government, in order to
weaken the influence of extreme right-wingers like Itamar Ben-Gvir and Betzalel
Smotrich--out-and-out racist fascists who will demand key ministries in return for their
support and whom even Netanyahu may have reason to fear.
Q. Bottom line?
A. As matters stand, the most that proponents of democratic, anti-corrupt governance in
Israel can hope for is another failed election. That would leave Yair Lapid in charge of an
interim government and Benjamin Netanyahu unable to form a coalition and still on trial.
Of course, a lot can change prior to October 25.